Sunday, September 18, 2005

Religion as a game

Religion has been using the psychology behind online social games for centuries. Here’s one example. When you die and go to heaven in particular Buddhist sects in Japan, the priest gives the deceased a new name in an elaborate ceremony. Naturally, the family pays the priest for his time.

Highly respected people get longer names. However, if you haven’t devoted much of your life to being respectable, the family can pay the priest a little money on the side to purchase extra characters on your new name. This all gets me thinking: the afterlife is the original virtual world and avatar-based businesses are older than I first imagined.

What other elements of online game design have you seen in your favorite religions?
(and yes, this is an attempt at having at least one short post this month. ;-)


  1. Tithing would be the most obvious thing to come to mind, although in my experience most churches prefer you donate more than $14.95 a month.

  2. well interesting aproach...
    while i have to agree with the article and i will post my thoughts I feel the need to point some things out.
    1.Please try not to offend someone or someones religion by compairing it with an online game in a bad way
    2.Please try to understand the difference between the foundamental truth or priech of a religion from the practical interpratation and practise from the churches, it's a different thing the religion and the church and it's ways of operating...

    Now some comments...
    Through prays, meditation and regious living in a lot of religions a man can come closer to God, or in other religions purify his soul. As a fact lets say that by these practices one can increase his spiritual value. This however is a common thing in games, like exp points increase HP there are ather game mechanics that increase spirituality or mentality.

    A new trend in some mass multiplayer online games are the so called ad servers that are responsible for displaying adds in games. In churches we often see sings with the name of a donator depicted near status (catholics christians) or icons (orthodox christians).

  3. Is it really religeons being like online games or is it online games being like religeons?

    If you think about it, in a lot of ways running an online game is a lot like running a religeon. You get a whole bunch of people enthralled with a myth. Then you get money from them. Then you try to keep them coming back for more and more of the same old stuff so you can get more and more money. Actually, it sounds more like a cult, but the line is blurry.

  4. I think it probably makes more sense to create games that are mindful of the religious sensibilities of the audience you wish to target, rather than to view games as the equivalent of religion, running the risk of offending your consumer base.

    You might view Games and religions both as rule constructs that provide a reward structure, but then you risk sounding like that nagging parent who yells at his teenager for spending all day in front of the Xbox, entirely unsympathetic of the true joy that a really good game brings the player...

    ...and perhaps a little jealous...



  5. I've always wanted to see some aspects of Hinduism turned into a game mechanic, specifically the concept of being reborn as a new animal after death, the animal you're reborn as depending on your actions and virtues during your life before death. If you were particularly unvirtuous and uncaring in one life, your next life may be lived as a small insect or bacterial matter. If you lived a prosperous life and were loving and considerate towards all things, you'd be reborn as, uh, a cow. And then afterwards acheive Nirvana.

    It'd just be something cool to see transferred into a video game somehow.

  6. Thought provoking.

    Reminds me of the old Timothy Leary theory that tv posts were the modern incarnation of churches (the buildings).
    Let's admit video game is the new tv (I know, I'm making a big jump here, the natural transition should be: "let's admit PCs or consoles are the new tv" but I think it does make sense that way, church was both tool and sign, consoles are tools, but games are signs, the gap already present with tv/programs is increasing, at least I feel so).
    What becomes troubling is the emergence of a new set of tools: we use signs to enforce signs. Furthermore, the manipulation of signs, under the careful limiting guidelines left by programmers, becomes the one major form of practice by wich the enforcing takes place.

    But then, what does it tell us of the religion behind ?
    That it doesn't care what the belief system of the player happens to be, as long as the practice of that belief takes the shape it is being assigned ?
    Maybe. Would make good material to work with Deleuze's theory that capitalism is in essence a society of perpetual decoding/recoding via surcoding.

    Bookmarks added. Thanks for an afternoon of thinking well spent.

  7. "I've always wanted to see some aspects of Hinduism turned into a game mechanic, specifically the concept of being reborn as a new animal after death, the animal you're reborn as depending on your actions and virtues during your life before death."

    There were a couple of obscure scrolling shooter games for the NES and Genesis where the powerups you got at the end of each level were dependent on how well you did in the previous level (i.e. how many enemies you killed, how fast you defeated the boss, how many extra-score items you picked up, etc.).

    While it's harder to equate killing to virtue, the abstract mechanic is there -- how you did in this life (level) directly affects how you start off in the next one.

    Why hasn't the mechanic flourished in games? Because it has this death-spiral side effect where once you start to do poorly, the trend continues and you tend to lose shortly afterward. Players find this not very fun; once you start to slip, losing is a foregone conclusion, and playing further is just an exercise in frustration.

    You could try to mitigate that by scaling the level difficulty to the player's starting point, so that doing poorly in one level makes the next one easier. And then you'd have to give significantly higher scores for playing at higher difficulty, otherwise the optimal strategy would be to play poorly to keep the difficulty manageable. To my knowledge, no one has tried that. (Perhaps by the time someone figured it out, video games stopped keeping score for the player?)

  8. Dear Danc,

    I am completely an utterly blown away by the massive nuclear explosion of intelligence and competency presented on your site. Since I discovered it only yesterday via a link from, I've begun reading your backlog of ingenius insight and am immensely enjoying your scholarly methodology. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for that.

    Now I'd like to address the one specific topic of women in relation to gaming. I'm telling you about it here since I don't know if you'll read it if I only post in the appropriate topic.
    So please go see it. My gushing praise continues there.

  9. Hi Danc --

    You asked for comments, so here goes. As a person with closely held beliefs, it's hard to equate aspects of faith with gaming. Gaming is probably the least "important" thing I do with my life, at the bottom of a long list that includes parenting, earning a living, and so on. I work to keep my faith at the forefront of my life. So, to me, comparing the two is a severe impedence mismatch. Just for the record, I'm not offended or any such thing. I'm sure the question doesn't bother people who don't take religion seriously. Truthfully, I can't even make comparisons with other, differing faiths, because I respect their right to take theirs seriously as well.

    I always cringe when I hear references to religion in the gaming community. It usually turns into an excuse for the immature among us to make jokes about God, his followers, and the institutions that seek to serve him. And, free country though it is, we are free to mock each other, and what we don't understand. One reason I like your site is that the posts are generally intelligent, and I feel like I'm among adults. :) The comments on this topic I've read so far enforce that view.

    So for what it's worth, that's my non-answer to the question. Thanks for letting me post.

  10. Thanks for posting.

    There is no ill will here towards any particular religion and in fact quite a bit of respect. Ray can probably speak to that in a bit more detail. :-)

    I'm very interesting in discussions that bring together ideas from very different, but perhaps related, areas of human activity. Cross pollination often provides both groups with an enlightening perspective.

    Wonderful comments so far.

    take care

  11. Dear Danc,

    It really depends on the religion, but if we look at the Bahai faith specifically we learn that the form or 'avatar' a person's soul takes on in the 'next world' is unknown. What it is dependent upon is, as I understand, the deeds and life a person has chosen to lead here on earth.

    Thus, one of the purposes of this mortal life is preparation for life in the next world. We must strive to bring forth the latent virtues and hidden 'spiritual gems' within our selves. The most common analogy used to explain this is the developing baby in the womb of the mother. The baby develops legs, arms, eyes and ears all which aren't used to full effect whilst in the womb. It is understandable that these would not be seen as particularly useful until that baby is free from the womb. Then these limbs take on a function and they become indispensible.

    But back to your question at hand. I think the social control aspect of religion (which can be overt or implied) applies equally to online games. There are the inherent laws of gameplay and game physics that limit the sort of activity a player can do. And there are people who enforce the rules and consequences.

    Then there are the more interesting social rules that are created by players which are often based on morals or ethics. Guilds can represent sects or breakaway renegades who seek to fashion their own 'way of life' based on a differing ideology. I can't think of any concrete examples of inherent social rules, but I'm sure you might have a few.

    Your religion and MOG analogy runs deeper than I had initially thought. Thanks as always for the stimulating posts.

  12. Danc has been known to say nice things about religion. He sometimes gets carried away, especially about political issues that brush up against religion, but this is mostly because he lives in Boulder Colorado where folks live in a little bubble of kooky liberalism.

    He even went to temple square with me, to see a bunch of multimedia displays advocating Mormonism in Salt Lake City... at which he expressed his skepticism... (which is what some of the finest traditional Christian friends of mine do likewise...all the time...)

    If anything, Danc's religion is games... so it's natural he'd look to some sort of ecumenical outreach...


    PS> I don't always agree with Danc's sense of "tact" towards religious folks... heck, I don't even like that he named his game design discussion project "Space Crack"...

    PPS> Now when you gonna update your gallery, Danc!? I wanna see your latest sketches from Japan... (I posted comments on random pics at Aya's porfolio, she's so cute!).

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  14. What other game facets have I seen in religions? Replay value. :)

    Some of the earliest "attractive" religions were the mystery cults of Demeter and Dionysus. Both shared something that later got absorbed by a burgeoning Christianity: promises of a pleasant afterlife to its followers, something the mainstream Greek religion certainly didn't have.

    It's the same quality that you see in many video games. You may die, but you get to continue having a good life/game. In the case of the Greek mysteries, this was usually just a matter of going through a few rituals. In younger religions, it might involve living life in a proper way.

    The first could be buying the game (or putting in the Konami Code?), the latter might be not running out of continues - or coins, at the arcade.

    Fun exercise. =)

    Peter S.

  15. It struck me when I started playing the Guild Wars how similar these kind of games are to "heaven" in the good old Nordic mythology/religion; Valhalla ("Hall of the slain"). There one fight all day and if you're killed you wake up the next day, fit as a fiddle, ready to fight some more. (The partying every evening on mead and roasted pork with Odin seems to be missing, though...)

  16. Absolutely, mortenjohs. I came to the same conclusion through playing Unreal Tournament.
    We've made our very own Valhalla(s) in the form of Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament etc, and it seems that we're finding they're not all they're cracked up to be. (Still lots of fun though.)

    On a peripherally-related note, is anyone here familiar with the slightly-fringe aspects of certain game and anime fandoms on the net? It occurs to me that the fan "cults" that spring up around these (I'm primarily thinking of the megapopular "Shrine Maiden" indie game series) are disconcertingly similar to the polytheistic religions of ancient Greece and Rome: the characters tend to be ascribed certain attributes, much like the deities of those pantheons; each has devotees and "shrines" (online, mostly); artwork and statues (albeit the latter in miniature scale!) are made to honour them; there are festivals (conventions); the devotees tend to develop the mythos with fiction (fanfic), occasionally of the more bawdy variety (H-doujinshi, erotic fanfic, etc), and so on.

    I wonder if this is generally true for all character-driven fiction, but doubt so... (?)

  17. both games and religions try very hard to be relevant to peoples life. both fail.

  18. It seems to be worth reminding everyone that if you're a religious game designer who prefers not to look at his or her own religion... there are plenty of older religions that can be mined for inspiration. You can even look to the other major modern religions.

    Of course, I can't recommend poking fun at Christianity in particular, and of course suggest you be careful in drawing on it in a non-Christian game, as you're likely to alienate some large number of potential buyers.